mocoNews - The Making Of Open Source: Checking In On The Symbian 'Movement'
Wednesday, April 8, 2009; 8:59 AM
Last week, I spent a lot of time with the folks from Symbian, the mobile operating system that Nokia (NYSE: NOK) paid $410 million for, only to turn around and donate the assets to an open-source foundation. What I wanted to know was how the employees?who were once programmed to make profits and sell licenses?were adapting to a life as a non-profit, which gave away code and incorporated the intellectual property of others? From the outside, it appears the transition is going well. Over the past few months, the Foundation's openness has been demonstrated through its blog, which informs people of everything from the move into new offices to the latest software launch. The vocabulary is very deliberate, using words such as "community," "movement," and "heart" whenever possible. Developers and outsiders are encouraged to give their opinions, and frequently, Symbian responds with an explanation, even when criticized (I'll get to that later).
Symbian has no simple task in front of it. This may be the largest open-source endeavor that any one entity has ever attempted. As Nokia executives have said before, it brings together millions of lines of code that companies have invested billions of dollars to create. But the radical decision to open-source the software clearly demonstrates the mounting competition from new entrants, such as Apple (NSDQ: AAPL), the LiMo Foundation, Google's Android operating system and even incumbent platforms such as Microsoft's Windows Mobile. In some ways, Symbian had no choice.
Last week, the Foundation came a bit closer to its goals by achieving two milestones: The Symbian Foundation officially launched, which means Nokia handed over all of the Symbian trademarks and domain names that it acquired through its purchase. It also launched its new logo?a hand-etched yellow heart?and unveiled a website. Symbian hosted two press events at CTIA to address the developments. I talked extensively to both Lee Williams, the Foundation's executive director, and David Wood, who plays the role of 'catalyst.' By all appearances, the openness seems genuine, and was represented well in both events, which were managed more like open forums than press conferences where executives pontificated from a stage.
I asked Wood how he was dealing with the transition?from for-profit to non-profit status. He said it may be easier than expected because the employees wanted it. As a company, they were feeling restricted by what they could say. They also were limited when it came to helping developers because the code was protected. Still, Wood acknowledges this is one of the most difficult things he has ever done. In speaking with Williams, I quickly learned he had as many questions for us as we had for him. He asked: How should they spend their money, and what are the company's weaknesses? They asked us to quiz them, and we obliged by thinking up the hardest questions we could?How can you be successful in the U.S. if your biggest handset partners?Nokia and Sony (NYSE: SNE) Ericsson (NSDQ: ERIC)?aren't relevant here? Do consumers really want a brand?the Symbian heart?on their handset? The interchange, dare I say, felt community-oriented.
But as much as this sounds like a happy ending to a story, it's really just the beginning. So far, 100 members have applied to be apart of the new Foundation, including Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Visa and Texas Instruments. That aside, consumers will make the final decision as to whether they want an open-source phone?and since it's unlikely that most consumers know what that means, it may come down to a cute yellow heart. Symbian also must delicately balance its relationship with developers, and in fact, in building this new company has already rubbed some the wrong way. In a recent speech, Wood used the word "movement" to describe Symbian's community approach. Several audience members "were unconvinced by the suggestion, or even perturbed by it," he wrote in a blog post. In person, Wood explained they were insulted by the suggestion that he wanted them to be boosters no matter what?like "Apple fan boys," who provide blind support. That's not the intent, Wood said. "We're looking for informed, intelligent passion. We're looking for participants who know full well what they're doing. We want developers and end-users to get firmly into the state of flow with Symbian software, where they can become both highly productive and highly fulfilled. And we're expecting plenty of fully informed debate along the way." Will it work? We'll have to wait and see.